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For Afghan women, world is uniting again—this time to leave them to their fate

Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan banned women from universities—the latest in a series of measures which mark the descent of an iron veil over Afghanistan.

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From the high walls of Afghanistan’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, the portraits of the country’s kings looked down on the journalists who trooped into Kabul after 9/11, in the weeks after the fall of the Taliban. There was just one painting—taken from a photograph of king Amanullah Khan—which included the queen consort. The artist, anthropologist Julie Billaud observed, had chosen to paint a traditional wedding veil over queen Soraya Tarzi’s face, flowing down to the floor.

Late in August 1928, Tarzi had torn off her veil at a Loya Jirga, or grand assembly of tribal elders, after a speech where the king had declared “Islam did not require women to cover their bodies or wear any special kind of covering.” Tarzi set up the country’s first schools and hospitals for women. The portrait represented the erasure of Tarzi’s dramatic rebellion against tradition—a radicalism too deep even for the new republic.

Earlier this week, the reborn Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan banned women from universities—the latest in a series of measures which mark the descent of an iron veil over Afghanistan. Girls have been banned from high schools, the United Nations says, and gender-segregation rules are denying women access to work and even healthcare. Forced marriages—often to ageing Taliban commanders—have become common.

The Taliban had promised, before taking power, to allow the education of women to continue, and vowed to “guarantee the legal and human rights of every child, woman and man.” Their failure to keep their promises has led to loud condemnation in world capitals—but the international community is offering Afghanistan’s women little more than pieties. Even scholarships for women have been restricted in India, and many other countries.

“Women are half of society and they’re disregarded,” one woman told the researchers Roxanna Shapour and Rama Mirzada. “How can a bird fly on only one wing?”

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The politics of gender apartheid

Ever since the cleric Nida Muhammad Nadim took charge as the Islamic Emirate’s higher education minister in October, he began working to dismantle the last traces of Tarzi’s legacy.  Last month, the minister assailed Amanullah for “bringing debauchery and obscenity from foreign lands.”  Educating women, he argued, “clashed with Islam and Afghan values.” Following the decision to close college gates to women, Nadim complained that students “wore dresses like they are going to a wedding ceremony.”

The higher education minister also argued against examination tests for Taliban candidates who were seeking jobs. A Taliban’s true qualification, he insisted, was the “number of bombs” he had detonated.

Like many of the most powerful figures in the Islamic Emirate, Nadim is a member of a small circle of clerics from the southern Kandahar region grouped around its emir, Hibatullah Akhundzada. The key figures in the group include Mohammad Khalid Haqqani, the head of the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice—responsible for enforcing theocratic norms—as well as chief justice Abdul Hakim Haqqani and minister of religious affairs Nur Muhammad Saqeb.

Few details have emerged on Nadim’s background, but the 1977-born cleric is thought to have run a seminary in Kandahar, before joining the Taliban insurgency after 9/11. Earlier, he served as regional governor for Nangarhar and Kabul.

The hard line on educating women, some argue, is enmeshed with a power-struggle within the Taliban, with rival factions using religion as an instrument to assert their legitimacy. Earlier this year, Akhundzada ordered judges to rigorously enforce shari’a-law punishments, including flogging and amputations—restituting the savagely-coercive legal system used to subjugate women before 9/11.

Even earlier, though, the Islamic Emirate had taken an ambiguous posture on educating girls—notably, by resiling on a promise to reopen high schools after a meeting of top leaders failed to reach a consensus. The previous minister for higher education, Abdul Baqi Haqqani—linked to the eastern Afghan networks of Taliban leader Sirajuddin Haqqani—had said women could continue to study at university, but in gender-segregated classrooms. Abdul Baqi, however, insisted formal education was “less valuable” than clerical instruction.

Top Taliban leaders—among them health minister Qalandar Ebad, deputy foreign minister Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, and spokesperson Suhail Shaheen—sent their own daughters for higher education, casting it as an Islamic duty.

Facing resentment against Taliban commanders enriched by power in Kabul—in an increasingly poor country—the southern Afghan clerics responded by pushing the anti-modern values of their peasant constituencies.

Even after a democratic government was instituted following 9/11, resistance against education for girls remained widespread in swathes of rural Afghanistan. The United Nations noted last year that the number of girls in higher education increased from only 5,000 in 2001 to just around 90,000 in 2018. Teachers and students remained concentrated in urban areas.

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Education, gender and class

Entwined with class and tradition, the education of women has been a fraught political issue for over a century. King Abdur Rahman Khan—the founding patriarch of the Afghan State, who ruled from 1880 to 1901—believed women ought to remain subordinate to men, but sought to eradicate some elements of institutionalised discrimination. The king abolished the custom of forcing widowed women to marry their husband’s next of kin, raised the age of marriage, and permitted divorce.

Fahima Rahimi and Nancy Dupree Hatch have recorded that king Abdur Rahman’s wife, Bobo Jan, appeared in public without a veil, wearing European dress. The queen, they wrote, engaged actively in politics, “rode horses and trained her maidservants in military exercises.”

King Habibullah, Abdur Rahman’s son, continued efforts at reform, opening Afghanistan’s first colleges, as well as an English-medium school for girls. Tarzi’s father—the liberal journalist and diplomat Mehmud Beg Tarzi—played a key role in pushing for reforms in education and marriage. The modernisation effort, though, challenged the power of tribal leaders—leading to the king’s assassination in 1919.

Following the murder, Tarzi and king Amanullah rose to rule the country. Their ambitious efforts at reform provoked a furious backlash. Encouraged by imperial Britain—which saw Amanullah as a threat—tribal rebellion was soon brewing against his efforts to end the veil, give women the right to choose their partners, and proscribe polygamy. Images of the unveiled queen were circulated in Afghanistan’s south, inciting anger among clerics.

European experiences led the royal couple to transform Afghanistan into a constitutional monarchy with an elected assembly and a secular judiciary. The most significant of their decisions was to make education compulsory for both genders and set up co-educational schools.

Though the reforms did little to change the lives of women outside Kabul, Huma Ahmed-Ghosh writes, they constituted a powerful threat to the established order. The Loya Jirga rebelled in 1928, incensed by Amanullah’s decision to raise the marriage to 18 for women and 21 for men. Amanullah rolled back his plans, but it was too late: The king and queen would be forced into exile ten years after they took power.

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The mullahs against the State

Empowering women continued to be a central motif of Afghan modernisation, however. Though King Zahir Shah moved cautiously through his long reign from 1933-1973, he saw empowering women as part of a wider political effort to break the hold of reactionary clerics over rural society. Women teachers, nurses and doctors began emerging from Afghan educational institutions in the 1940s. Kabul University founded faculties of medicine, sciences and humanities for women, in addition to separate institutions for men.

Following a coup in 1973, Zahir Shah was deposed by his cousin Daud Khan, who set up a one-party republic. The new republic dramatically expanded education for girls. Leaders supported by Pakistan, like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Ahmad Shah Masood, and Burhanuddin Rabbani, made the issue a centre-piece of their resistance to the regime.

Kabul and other cities, Billaud writes, “were perceived to be the centres of ‘sin’ and ‘vice’ precisely because of the high visibility of educated, emancipated urban women. To many peasant women, whose lives had gained little from the process of westernisation, the idea that a licentious urban élite was threatening the family and the rural order was an attractive one.

Fanaticism flourished inside refugee camps in Pakistan, which grew dramatically after the Soviet invasion in 1979. A decree issued by clerics in 1989, Valentine Moghadam recorded, ordered women “not to walk in the middle of the street or swing their hips, they were not to talk, laugh, or joke with strangers or foreigners.” A year later, girls were barred from school. Women who protested, like the feminist Meena Keshwar Kamal, were assassinated.

The Taliban institutionalised these values when they captured power in 1996. A sliver of ankle showing, a gust of wind slightly revealing the face, a movement judged as provocative: Almost anything could be punished with a public beating.

Following its Cold War triumph, the United States and its allies ceased to care. Today, the world is uniting in showing its willing to leave Afghan women to their fate.

The author is National Security Editor, ThePrint. He tweets @praveenswami. Views are personal.

(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)

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